Western Cape Government Announces Steps to Strengthen Numeracy and Literacy Strategy
The Western Cape government has set bold targets to improve literacy and numeracy in the province by 2014. We will not rest until the majority of children in the province are able to read, write and calculate at the appropriate level.
In order to achieve the drastic improvement in these areas that is a required, a comprehensive literacy and numeracy strategy is currently being implemented. A key element of this strategy is to test learner's proficiency in numeracy and literacy in Grades three (3), six (6) and nine (9) and to utilise the results of these tests to help determine a targeted response to any shortcomings that are identified.
To this end, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) began last week, testing over two hundred and forty-seven thousand (247 000) Grade three (3), six (6) and nine (9) learners to determine literacy and numeracy proficiency in these grades. These tests are an essential element of our strategy as they help identify the schools which are in need of targeted remedial action and support.
Given the paramount importance of improving learner outcomes to the provincial government, we are constantly assessing these results and refining our strategy to improve levels of numeracy and literacy. This continuous analysis and reflection has allowed for a number of improvements to be made to the literacy and numeracy strategy which began in 2002.
This strategy is starting to bear dividends, with levels of literacy in Grade three (3) having steadily improved over the last eight years from thirty five point seven percent (35.7%) to fifty three point five percent (53.5%). However, the province's numeracy levels still remains unacceptably low, the pass rate for numeracy was thirty five percent (35%) in 2008. It is clear then that more still needs to be done.
It is in this spirit of constantly striving to improve our interventions, that in July 2009, the Western Cape government commissioned an independent study led by Prof. Servaas van der Berg of the University of Stellenbosch, to help identify the underlying causes of poor learner performance in some Western Cape schools as measured by the Grade three (3) Literacy and Numeracy results.
The research aimed to identify the relevant school and classroom factors that contribute to learner performance in the critically important Foundation Phase, while controlling for poverty and home background, and to use this to inform an intervention strategy and budget reprioritisation.
The main hypothesis set out in the Terms of Reference for this study was that learning in classrooms in weak-performing schools was negatively affected by one or a combination of three (3) types of problems:
- School dysfunctionality
- Weak ability of teachers in Foundation Phase classrooms to teach
- Poor teacher effort
Forty-five (45) schools were selected to participate in the study, with nine (9) having performed above the provincial average and thirty six (36) schools below. This represents a statistically relevant sample size. The research included, classroom observations, interviews with teachers, principals and other stakeholders about classroom behaviour, school functionality and accountability and a statistical investigation into the Grade three (3) results.
A number of positive findings emerged from the study. The survey results show that Western Cape schools suffer far less endemic dysfunctionality than anywhere else in the country, or even less than may have been the case in the province in the past.
It appears from the results that most schools are functioning, in the sense that normal procedures are being followed, basic functions are performed, resources (including teachers) are in place, and the daily routine is followed. Registers are kept, teachers and learners are in classes most of the time, and classes continue.
It is heartening that a number of interventions by the provincial government to ensure 'time on task' are working and that the levels of basic functionality are present throughout the system.
Another positive finding was that the regular testing has influenced classroom behaviour for the better. Educators and schools are taking the regular testing of learners seriously, and have become more conscious of their learner's results and the need to improve them. Therefore, the tests have helped already to improve levels of accountability within the system.
However, deeper analysis of the results indicates that in many cases, substantive learning is not taking place in the classrooms of weaker schools. A similar situation applies to teachers' ability to teach. The survey did not point to an endemic problem of teachers' being unable to maintain discipline or being unfamiliar with teaching procedures in teaching Literacy and Numeracy. Lesson plans were kept, work schedules drawn up and assessments undertaken.
Yet, when researchers delved deeper, analysis of workbooks, homework and questions posed in class indicates that:
- Teachers in some instances do not set the bar high enough for children, i.e. at high enough levels of cognitive demand.
- The learners did not have the optimum number of opportunities to handle books.
- There is limited teaching of reading and writing.
A number of recommendations were made by Prof van den Berg and his team to correct these shortcomings in our weaker schools. A number of these recommendations already form part of the provinces' literacy and numeracy strategy, and a number of others are being considered for incorporation in 2011.
Firstly, the report recommended that primary schools be grouped into categories based on their performance with targeted assistance for the weaker performing schools. The WCED has adopted a similarly differentiated approach to support in 2010 in our high schools. This approach sees schools that perform well left to manage their own affairs, this in turn allows for far greater targeted and specific assistance to underperforming schools. This approach will now be replicated in primary schools.
Secondly, the report suggested that we increase and enhance the role of foundation phase curriculum advisors (CAs). The report suggests that CAs should regularly observe classrooms for extended periods, to observe levels of cognitive demand, macro pacing, time on task, alignment of lesson plans, work schedules and assessment tasks. Further, that they check volume and quality of written work, that work has been marked and that the necessary feedback is given.
The Foundation Phase Curriculum Advisors have already met to discuss this for implementation in 2011 and we will ensure that classroom practice is more closely and effectively monitored. The WCED is also currently developing a simple and practical assessment tool for CAs to use to effectively monitor good classroom practice. This intervention will also help reduce any possible confusion around the curriculum and in particular how to appropriately assess the progress of learners in literacy and numeracy.
Thirdly, it was suggested that principals should be required to report quarterly to the WCED on the progress of their educator's in completing the curriculum. From next year, we will expect quarterly assessment of curriculum coverage in the classroom. This will allow for an early warning system to be developed, which will see any teacher falling behind with the curriculum being provided with targeted assistance and support to ensure that this shortcoming is remedied.
Fourthly, it was recommended that classes in the Foundation Phase do not exceed more then forty (40) learners. Addressing overcrowding in the Foundation Phase has been a priority for this government, and we have already initiated a number of steps to address this issue.
Our R1,9 billion infrastructure programme is specifically targeted at the Foundation Phase, with over one hundred and twenty (120) relief classrooms currently being built (117 to be delivered by January 2011) to ensure that we reduce class sizes in Grades one to three (1-3) to no more than forty (40) learners. We also prioritised the allocation of additional teachers to the Foundation Phase when determining the basket of posts allocation.
Fifthly, the research underscored the importance of textbooks in the Foundation Phase. The WCED has already purchased textbooks for Grades two (2) and three (3). This critical intervention will be complemented by the provision of the nationally produced work books as well as the provision of readers. The Western Cape government believes very strongly in the primacy of textbooks and is currently ensuring that maximum resources are allocated to the purchase and provision of such texts.
Finally, the report also recommended expanding the use of the testing data, making it more user-friendly and informative, as well as, widening its audience to include parents and communities. To this end the WCED will from 2012 provide individualised report cards on the results of the Grades three (3), six (6) and nine (9) testing. This will be an invaluable tool to help parent's assess their child's performance and to hold their schools accountable for their performance.
Learners, parents and teachers can rest assured that the provincial government is determined to improve levels of numeracy and literacy in the province and that we will do everything possible to achieve this objective. We are confident that with a sustained and focused approach, that we will continue to improve the situation and that by 2014, we will have made a material difference in the literacy and numeracy skills of the children of the Western Cape.
Minister of Education, Donald Grant
Cell: 072 724 1422
Tel: 021 467 2377